Posted by Susan Doll on May 24, 2010
Hollywood has always relied on remakes and reworkings of previous movie hits as a strategy to lure audiences to the theater. As far back as the silent era, directors and producers remade films to speak to new generations, to showcase the talents and images of new stars, and to rework the material with updated techniques or technology. Just to be clear: I am not speaking of movies based on famous source material, such as classic novels, standard plays, or legendary cultural figures. I’m referring to the remake of a property that is best known in its film incarnation even if its original source was literary.
It is tempting to speculate that remakes became a convention of studio filmmaking when talkies overtook silent films, so that audiences could see popular silents reworked with dialogue, musical scores, and sound effects, and, indeed, there was a rash of talkie versions of certain silents between 1927 and the mid-1930s. But the strategy was prevalent long before sound. In 1921, Hollywood kingpin Cecil B. DeMille redid The Golden Chance, a feature-length drama from 1915, into Forbidden Fruit. Up-and-coming director John Ford remade James Gordon‘s 1913 Hoodman Blind in 1923. Silent clowns such as Larry Semon and Charley Chase often remade their comedy shorts, or even reworked the films of other silent comedians, as when Chase remade Harold Lloyd’s His Royal Slyness as Long Fliv the King.
During the Golden Age, remaking old properties with new stars was a standard practice. I thoroughly enjoy watching remakes from the Golden Age, and I like to compare and contrast them with the originals. I do not compare in order to judge which classic-era film is better but to understand how each reflects the issues, problems, concerns, and preoccupations of the decade that produced it. Sometimes I prefer the original, and sometimes I prefer the remake. Even when the remake comes up short, it generally exhibits a level of craftsmanship that marked all Golden Age films, and it often features entertaining star turns by the principle actors.
However, the flood of remakes in the past few years, plus the onslaught that is about to glut the theaters in the near future, leaves me cold. Apparently, I am not the only person dreading this upcoming plate of re-hash from the studios as there seems to be a negative buzz about this among reviewers and pop-cultural pundits. Even Variety entered the fray with their April 19 cover story, “H’Wood’s 30-Year Pitch: Biz Dusts Off ‘80s Pics for Remake Wave.” I was immediately disgusted when I read in the article that Michael Bay’s company, Platinum Dunes, is preparing to remake Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Since being dumbfounded by that bit of news, I have been pondering the idea of remakes, re-workings, and re-visualizations. What about the remakes from the Golden Age makes the strategy seem less offensive? Did reviewers back in the day notice when a film was a remake of an older movie, and if so, did they complain about it? Is it possible for a remake in the contemporary era to be worthwhile? If so, how can a viewer predict if a remake is worth catching or if it should be avoided? [For another perspective on remakes, see fellow Morlock rhsmith’s “They Don’t Remake ‘em Like That Anymore" by clicking here.]
Remaking favorite films or familiar stories is not a bad strategy in and of itself. Revisiting a few well-known original/remake pairings from long ago reveals the positive virtues of reworking previously produced material, Some of my favorite examples follow.
Released in 1940, the screwball comedy My Favorite Wife stars Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as married couple Nick and Ellen Arden, who were separated for seven years when Ellen was shipwrecked on a deserted island. Nick has her declared legally dead, but she returns just after he has remarried. Twenty-three years later, My Favorite Wife was remade as Move Over Darling, a vehicle for Doris Day, which costarred James Garner as Nick. Though both are comedies based on the same material, the movies differ because of the stars who embody the characters and because of the eras in which they were made. The star images of Grant and Dunne color Nick and Ellen differently than those of James Garner and Doris Day. Dunne has a mature sophistication that makes her version of Ellen Arden have the upper hand on Nick as played by Grant, whose energy and adeptness at physical shtick are worked to good effect. For example, in the scene in which Ellen is introduced to Nick’s new wife, who doesn’t know who Ellen is, Dunne smoothly launches one verbal barb after another, while Grant makes the most out of squirming nervously. The look on his face as he rapidly and loudly stirs a martini while his new bride blabs about their wedding night in front of Ellen is a good example of Grant’s talent for double takes and comic reactions. Scenes like this actually pit Nick and Ellen against each other. Presenting the romantic couple as opposing characters—rich vs. working class, cool vs. high-strung, introverted vs. extraverted—is a hallmark of screwball comedy. Grant and Dunne, who were major stars when they appeared in My Favorite Wife, played off each other very well. They had already made one movie together and would make another shortly after Wife. Like another film released two months earlier titled Two Many Husbands, in which a dead husband returns to find his wife has remarried, My Favorite Wife gets a lot of mileage out of intentionally dancing around the Production Code, Hollywood’s much maligned censorship code that had strong guidelines for dealing with bigamy, infidelity, and suggestions of adultery.
Move Over Darling was developed as a vehicle for Doris Day in her latter-day star image as the pristine, wholesome woman who embodied the old-fashioned idea that sex was sanctified only by marriage. Easy-going James Garner, who was riding a wave of popularity following his stint as the carefree title character in Maverick, costars as Nick. Move Over Darling is a traditional romantic comedy rather than a screwball, because it lacks the suggestion that Nick and Ellen are opposing forces. Instead of banter and verbal barbs, Move Over Darling depends more on physical comedy, as when Day’s Ellen is stuck in an automatic car wash. The character actors who flesh out the cast also add a different flavor to each movie. I wish I had space to comment on Randolph Scott as Ellen’s “mate” on that desert island in My Favorite Wife, or Don Knotts as the lowly shoe clerk who tries to help Ellen out of a jam in Move Over Darling, but you get the idea. Both films depend on the star system to make each version different despite sharing the same source material. The characteristics associated with the stars’ images, and talents associated with the actors, define the characters and shape the material. That was the genius of the star system, and the studios understood how to exploit that in a way few producers and directors do today. Move Over Darling was generally well received by reviewers, who either didn’t mention that it was a remake or recognized that Day’s performance made this version entirely different.
Sometimes remakes are driven by the themes and styles of their directors. A director can reshape a narrative into his own preoccupations and interests. Much has been made of the idea that the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Don Siegel is an interpretation of the McCarthy Era. Some interpret the pod people who sprout from alien pods as an allegory for the spread of communism from within, which at the time was a common fear widely expressed in newspapers, speeches, and other public forums; others interpret them as symbols of the era’s rigid conformity, which compelled people to wear their patriotism like a badge of honor and declare their coworkers to be communists. For me, the pod people represent both, because Siegel is indicting the paranoiac vibe of the era. That Allied Artists changed Siegel’s original shocking ending takes nothing away from his tight direction and well-executed subtext. Twenty-two years later, Philip Kaufman of the Film School Generation remade Invasion of the Body Snatchers, moving the action to a major city and changing the occupations of the characters as well as the ending. Exploiting the idea of conformity, Kaufman’s version of the material attacks pop psychology and new-religion fads in which everyone was encouraged to feel good about themselves at the expense of solving social problems. Many such philosophies, which were little more than self delusion masquerading as self awareness, sprang up in the 1970s and 1980s, though we are not entirely free of them today. In 1993, the film was remade by Abel Ferrara as Body Snatchers. Set on a military base in Alabama, the storyline finds soldiers and personnel replaced by pod people. It’s not difficult to see this one as a criticism of the military as an institution.
Fourteen years later, German director Oliver Hirschbiegel was recruited by producer Joel Silver and Warner Bros. to rework the material for contemporary audiences as The Invasion. Though some criticism of the war in Iraq seems evident, the studio and Silver disliked Hirschbiegel’s interpretation of the material, because it was deemed “too slow” and “too difficult,” meaning the target audience of adolescent males would be disappointed. They snatched (no pun intended) the project away, reshot scenes, stuffed unnecessary action scenes into the mix, and concluded it with a meaningless chase sequence—a Silver specialty. Perhaps a clue to why contemporary remakes are disappointments lies in Hirschbiegel’s experience: Today’s directors lack the creative control they had at certain points in the past, and today’s studios pander to the target demographic.
Don Siegel, one of my favorite directors, not only directed a film that has been frequently remade (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), but he himself remade a classic film noir, turning it into a crime drama that reflected his interests and style. In 1964, Siegel remade the 1946 noir The Killers. In the original, the story unfolds from the perspective of an insurance investigator who wonders why the target of a murder just let the killers do him in without resistance. What he discovers is that the world is too corrupt for a good man like the victim, played by Burt Lancaster, to live in. In Siegel’s version, the narrative unfolds from the point of view of the morally compromised pair of hit men who find a worse kind of criminal—those who have one foot in the normal world. Lee Marvin stars as a veteran killer who doesn’t understand why his target did not run or put up a fight at the end. The hit man risks his career to figure out the mystery, and in the process, becomes a more sympathetic character, and a victim himself. The film is another example of Siegel’s interest in underworld characters who are sympathetic, and authority figures who are not. My favorite part of Siegel’s Killers is the interesting casting. Ronald Reagan costars in his final acting role as a sadistic crime boss who is smooth and controlled on the surface but selfish and ruthless beneath the mask. The role seemed the perfect segue into a political career. When Reagan was in the White House, I couldn’t help but think of his character in The Killers every time I saw him “play” the avuncular president with a corny joke and golly-gosh, can-do attitude.
Some of the most interesting remakes during the Golden Age were the result of reworking the material as a different genre from the original. The Maltese Falcon, based on Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled novel, was turned into a conventional mystery in 1931. Starring Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, the film is barely remembered today save for tragic blonde Thelma Todd’s role as Iva Archer. A decade later, the classic version with Bogart and Mary Astor was directed by John Huston and lensed by Arthur Edeson in a visually driven style that would help launch the film noir genre. What a difference visual style can make.
A common practice for studios was to remake a popular comedy as a musical, a change in genre that generally invigorated the material and propelled it in a different direction. In 1942, Columbia produced a film version of the play My Sister Eileen, which was in turn based on a series of short stories by Ruth McKenney. Rosalind Russell stars as the protective older sister of dish Janet Blair as the two women make their way as single girls in Greenwich Village. The character of the sister was tailored to Russell’s image as the brassy, savvy career woman, and the film revolves around her. Later, she was tapped to play the same role in the Broadway musical version of the film, Wonderful Town. The reworking of popular material from the stage to film back to the stage again was standard. It was so standard that a new Broadway musical was inspired by the film comedy, which had been based on the stage comedy. However, Columbia did not want to buy the rights to the Broadway musical Wonderful Town, so they developed new production numbers and tweaked the material into an ensemble piece for Betty Garrett, Janet Leigh, Jack Lemmon, and Bob Fosse. Fosse also choreographed the production numbers, updating the material and rejuvenating it with his style and approach.
Among the many other comedies that were turned into musicals was the legendary It Happened One Night (1934), which became You Can’t Run Away From It (1956) with Jack Lemmon and June Allyson. And, The Philadelphia Story (1940) was reworked as High Society (1956) with Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Celeste Holm. While the original comedies are considered significant classics, each of the musical versions also has its charms—from Fosse’s choreography in My Sister Eileen to Lemmon’s mugging in You Can’t Run Away from It to Crosby singing “Now You Has Jazz” with Louis Armstrong in High Society.
Remakes in previous eras seemed to have a strategy behind them that made them distinct from the originals, whether it was the result of casting stars with certain images, changing genres for a new take on familiar material, or allowing directors to rework the material to suit their themes and interests. Also, during the Golden Age, each studio produced an average of 50 films per year, with only a small percentage of their output consisting of remakes, so the remakes did not dominate the release schedules. I am sure there were lousy remakes of original films from the Golden Age that have fallen through the cracks, but they don’t seem to generate the same level of hostility as the contemporary trend for new versions of not-so-old movies.
Key to today’s remake mentality is the current corporate nature of the film industry, where production is in the hands of business and marketing graduates, former talent agents, corporate execs, and dealmakers. From their perspective, movies should be built around marketable elements that are linked in a deal or package even before a script is purchased. Deals are approved based on market research and marketing perceptions, such as the consumer appeal of a recognizable name (branding). A classic from another era has a recognizable title, even if the demographic hasn’t seen the original. Thus, the reasons behind remakes, sequels, and series (now called franchises) are not to showcase new stars, update the material through the style of a different director, or re-imagine it through another genre. It has to do with the value of a recognizable name, and the perception of films as “products” and “franchises” that the “demographic” will “consume.” It’s very telling that studio heads, producers, and other members of the movie colony back in the day made “movies,” “motion pictures,” or “pictures” for “fans.” I don’t want to condemn all contemporary remakes outright, because I think much depends on the film’s director and how much creative control he retains. I found respected director Neil Labute’s recent remake Death at a Funeral well crafted and very funny, and I personally preferred his very American milieu over the British one of the original. But, the lackluster nature of most remakes as well as their sheer number has certainly left a negative impression on movie-goers and reviewers who are not part of the target audience.
So, be prepared for the onslaught of remade products in the near future with recognizable name value that the target demographic will supposedly line up to consume. According to Variety, remakes of the following are either completed or in the works: The Karate Kid, The Birds, Police Academy, Short Circuit, Private Benjamin, Fright Night, Poltergeist, Escape from New York, RoboCop, Red Dawn, They Live, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Near Dark, Footloose, and True Grit. As for the latter, it will be interesting to see who contemporary Hollywood thinks is tall enough to walk in John Wayne’s boots.
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